disclaimer: not mine
After 10 minutes he shows up with two glasses.
After 20 she breaks open the box. He eyes the process - and the absolutely hideous packaging - with a measure of uncertainty. She throws him an amused look and the word "snob" is uttered - teasingly - somewhere between her first genuinely relaxed smile of the evening and his first exploratory sip.
He swirls the liquid around in his mouth and she watches. "How is it?"
He swallows and holds up his glass to the light, squinting. Now she suspects he's playing up the role for her entertainment, and her smile lengthens. "You drank all that disgusting bathtub gin at Frederick's place. This can't be worse."
"It isn't," he remarks, then drains his glass in one gulp for emphasis. "It's good."
"The very best those on a federal payroll can buy," she says, making a small toasting gesture.
Remembers, then mirrors her movement. "Indeed."
Something catches her attention. She gets to her feet and his eyes follow her as she moves to a display case still half-covered with a dust sheet. She leans closer to try and identify the curious glass and metallic objects on the shelves.
Soon a question reaches towards her from behind. "Do you like it?"
She glances back at him, confused for a moment.
"Your job," he clarifies, slowly twirling the stem of the now refilled glass between his thumb and index finger.
"You are my job."
And just like that they are back on risky, uncertain terrains.
There's a strange, intense light in his eyes, the same she saw as she walked towards his seated, shackled form on her first day. Now he's sitting across from her again, only the restraints are missing and the box in the room is filled with cheap wine. "Still want to analyze me, Lizzie?"
"A proper analysis would require objectivity and I think I lost mine some time ago," she admits after some hesitation.
There's a long pause, then: "I'm sorry for your loss," he deadpans.
"I doubt that."
There's a faint grin on his lips as he looks at her, then his playfulness gradually drains from his features, morphs into what looks like conflict - a motionless, soundless, breathless struggle to remain safely contained in his armchair.
"Whose place is this anyway?" she asks, looking around.
The tension cracks at once and the grin is back. "Jubal's." He waits for her to place the name.
Her face transforms as the realization arrives. "Wait. Parachuting Jubal?"
"Yes," he confirms, rising to his feet. "After 30 years, he finally decided to return to the US."
She turns back towards the display case. "So these are..."
"Cremation jewelries," he finishes as he steps next to her. "Old prototypes. He's a sentimental sort."
"They look really... well..."
"Let's go with that one. And people buy this stuff?"
"People buy anything from a good seller."
He can practically hear the questions forming in her head.
"The other guy," she says at last and his attention shifts to her, "the one who... who hurt you. What happened to him?" She isn't quite sure why she fixates on this particular detail but he doesn't seem to hold it against her.
He looks back at the colorful collection of skull pedants and tiny urns on three transparent shelves. They seem to be mocking him in silence. She stares at him and he stares at their distorted reflection splattered on many shiny surfaces - one seemingly shattered image yet each piece is a unique whole in itself.
Kill whoever tries to kill you.
She can feel him tensing up again, watches his jaw flex and unflex. She opens her mouth to say something but he breaks their silence first: "You were right."
"There are so many things I want to tell you," he says, still refusing to look at her. "I want..." His breath hitches again and his lips set into a thin line of pain. The words stop coming. He shakes his head, then takes another sip. The wine goes down with a grimace. Then he looks at her and keeps looking. His gaze is soft, searching for something. She wonders what he hopes to find, but only a half-whispered, half-smiled What? leaves her lips.
There are dark circles under her eyes still.
And a wasteland behind them.
"You look tired," he remarks.
She promised to keep the questions at bay tonight, so she lets the conversation shift. "I can't sleep much these days."
"Just the one I'm currently living," she tries to joke but neither cracks a smile. "How about you?" He tilts his head - a very multi-purpose gesture she currently interprets as a request for more information. "What keeps you up at night?"
Once again, her words come out more suggestive than intended, and a grin shadows his lips. All of a sudden, she feels something twisting her insides - a famished, greedy, and irrational intruder that pounces and feeds on the vivid flash frames firing up in her brain.
Red. Touching. Caressing. Kissing.
Making love to someone.
Their bodies tangled in sheets and each other.
Throats filled with sticky moans.
Fingers seeking, finding, entwining.
Muscles aching with mounting pleasure.
A marred back arching with a breathless release.
Luckily, his voice yanks her back to reality. "I have this... recurring dream," he says. "I've been having it for years." Her questioning eyes are prompting him to continue, so he braves himself to do so. "I wake up in it. It's cold and dark and so still. I can't see a thing. But I hear this... noise. Like someone playing the piano in the next room, but it's terribly off-key and erratic. So I try to move but I find I'm cuffed to the bed rails. I try calling out but I have no voice. I panic, start struggling, trying to twist free. The bones crack in my hands, but I still can't get away. That's when this... high-pitched... hellish screaming begins. Something... barely human, coming from all around. And the piano gets clearer. Louder and aggressive. It's deafening and I'm paralyzed. It feels like I'm drowning in the swell of that... that furious sound. I can hear it long after I wake up and..." he trails off and she is surprised to see a flash of an embarrassed smile.
"What is it?"
"I just feel so... starved afterwards. Is that normal?"
"I think you're just looking for comfort," she says, "That's normal. But snacking on cheesecake in the middle of the night is not exactly your healthiest option."
His hand protectively slides up and over his vest-covered stomach and he fixes her with a teasing look. "I take it you swear by a comforting physical activity instead?"
"You're changing the subject." His soft grin stretches and he takes another sip from his glass. "Is this why you got so worked up about that Vermeer a while back?" She rakes her brain for a name. "Young Woman Seated at the Virginals?" Her question wipes the amusement off his face. "You said you couldn't sleep because all you could hear was her hideous music."
"It's just a painting."
"Maybe so, but this isn't just a bad dream," she points out and decides to push on. "Who played the piano?"
"You haven't touched your wine," he says, motioning to the glass she's holding, desperate for a distraction.
But she refuses to back down. "Red...?"
His gaze locks back on hers and he blinks. Then blinks again but the salty moisture keeps building up in the corners of his eyes. He inhales deeply, his chest rising, then falling, and it must hurt a lot. She suspects that's the whole point. His composure is crumbling and the broken answer arrives wrapped in a shaky breath: "My daughter." The most fragile offering placed gently in her care. Maybe she knows what to do with it. Maybe she can end their suffering. Maybe...
"And the screaming..."
"Me. My wife," he says, taking a swig from his wine to recover. "And... others." His glass is emptied once again, but it's more than wine being forcefully swallowed. In seconds his grief is back under control after that momentary slip-up.
Sound is the first to cease when people die. Death robes its victims in a heavy, dull sort of quiet that's always reminded him of thick snow. It makes him shiver still, the act of taking a life. Yet death remains loud in his dreams, ceaselessly conducting its rotting, perverted symphony of loss and blood and pain.
He can almost hear it again and gives his head a small, preemptive shake.
Over the years he's found only a handful of substances capable of compelling this cruel private orchestra to a temporary rest.
Each is highly addictive and dangerous.
Its supplier is standing a mere foot away from him, waiting. Examining. Struggling. Maybe even worrying. So he chances another look at her. "You made this investigation go away," she says. "You orchestrated the whole thing." She is collecting the pieces, trying to fit them into an explanation he doesn't voice. "I didn't ask you to do that."
"You don't have to ask."
She doesn't want to sound ungrateful, the words still force themselves out: "But you do, Red." He remains silent, his brows lightly crinkled. He either doesn't understand or he doesn't want to. "How long has it been," she asks, cautiously prodding on, "since you were in an actual relationship?"
He stares at her. His nostrils flair lightly and there's that twitch again. Under the left eye. And it's followed by long moments of waiting and more staring and buzzing silence. Just when she is about to give up, the answer arrives with another hard swallow,
Enough. He snaps her response like a twig. "What do you want, Lizzie?"
What do you want
He's vibrating with tension and emotion. She's been needling him like no acupuncturist has ever been able to.
His reaction pushes her off balance. It abruptly switches their roles, and she's the one scrambling now, searching for an answer. He is asking, already doing what she said he had to. As you wish. But this is not what she meant. This is not how this works. She wants a normal conversation - a multitude of conversations - but this is an ambush. A push back against a vulnerability they have been both nurturing, inviting and complicit in creating. In this at least they are already equals.
24 years. He might be as clueless about certain things as she is. Confused and scared. The realization triggers an odd blend of fear and relief. He was her age when he lost his family and she is only 6 years older than his lawless, rootless solitude.
In that moment of pure, paralyzing doubt an answer - maybe the answer - bubbles up from somewhere dark and deep and unexamined: "I wanna go with you," she says. "Tomorrow."
If he is surprised, he doesn't show it.
"It's a business trip, not a case."
"Since I am your job anyway."
He works his mouth, seems to be considering the idea. Then his hand slips into his pocket. "You sure?"
His eyes remain on her for another long moment. When her resolve doesn't waver, he just nods and walks back to the coffee table. He pulls a burner from his pocket and eases himself down on the couch. The phone is flipped open and he quickly, squinting-ly, punches in a short message. Probably a code of some kind. Then he keeps staring at the screen, waiting.
She observes him from a distance. "What are you doing?"
"Adding your name to the passenger list." The phone buzzes with a reply. "Done," he says, looking up at her as the small device gets snapped shut and slid on the table.
This was too easy.
Her fingers fiddle with the stem of the wine glass. He slowly relaxes into the cushions, limbs spread and stretched in a space claiming fashion typical of males. She would feel reassured by anything typical from him if it weren't likely to be part of a meticulously tailored disguise.
She can feel the seconds tick by as they measure each other, both on the verge of a decision they have in fact made some time ago. One they keep making over and over.
"You're willing to take the risk? of me tagging along?"
There's a flash of pain, a memory. Crunching glass and dread and rain. "There's a risk either way."
Then something shifts inside him. Doubt seeps in. A cold drop trickling down along his spine.
"I killed 2 people yesterday," he says. 5 words that ring like a slap. "3 the day before, including the... 'other guy,'" he adds, borrowing her term with a quick, tense smile. It isn't what he intended to say, not now, not yet anyway, but the confession jumped the line in a reflexive act of sabotage when he sensed she was about to cross the room.
She remains in her corner, with a backdrop made of shiny jewelries of death, her gaze on him. His tone was matter-of-fact but she caught that glint of fear.
He's re-assessed the risks of his decision. Now it's her turn and - in any case - it's only fair to compensate for her most recent loss of objectivity by serving up a quick reminder.
"He was begging for forgiveness, his life. Swearing it wasn't his idea, reminding me of our fruitful partnership, assuring me, promising to help, to never betray me again." He pauses, his head bobs in a curt nod. "I shot him. There and then."
"He had plenty of time to be all those things he promised he was gonna be if I just gave him another chance." His gaze slides off her. For a heavy moment he stares at the spot in front of her feet and when he finally looks back up, there's muted anger in his eyes. "As far as I'm concerned, every minute of every day of the past year was a chance he failed to take."
"Are we still on the same subject here?" she asks, her suspicion giving way to certainty under his dark, pointed gaze.
"You have to find your footing again, Lizzie," he says, brushing off the question and the anger gets blinked away. "And I want you to know that you can lean on me until you do."
"So you'll take me with you because you don't want me to what? visit Tom and be assured and promised and reminded of certain things?"
"I'll take you because you asked me to. And I'm not gonna stop you from seeing Tom if that's what you want, but I don't think it's wise."
"Why? Because dumb and weak little me couldn't possibly handle that?"
"You are not dumb or weak but you still love the man he pretended to be, and that puts you at a disadvantage."
"You feel guilty about the shooting."
"I feel guilty because I enjoyed it."
"And you've also been second-guessing the decision itself ever since. Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe he didn't mean it. Maybe if he explains and I let myself believe it, if I shut my eyes long and hard enough, things go back to normal."
She was needling him before but now he is twisting a knife.
"I'm not judging you, Lizzie. It's human nature to cling to a familiar lie when the truth is excruciating to even contemplate. But Tom knows that, too, and make no mistake, he will try to exploit it."
"I know better now."
He smiles a sad little smile. "And when did that ever stop anyone?"